God, Faith, and Disasters

More than 2,100 people have died in the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Saturday, August 14th. More than 7,000 were injured. Tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. Rescue work was hampered by heavy rains brought on by Tropical Storm Grace.

Natural disasters and human suffering have long challenged people of faith. Why would  God allow such things to happen? It’s a core problem for some believers. But it also drives some people to become agnostic or atheist. A friend asked me: “Why is the world in such a mess if God really is in control? How can a loving God let thousands of people die from earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, disease, and terrorist attacks? Is God pouring out divine wrath on sinners?” 

Another friend said: “Well that’s just the way God works. You should remember the story of Job in the Bible.” Job’s seven sons and three daughters were killed in a wind storm that blew down the house where they were gathered. Job was confronted with the fact that because of a natural disaster he lost all of his children. His wife said to curse God and die. But Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” 

Is it possible to make sense of such awful events? Philosophers refer to this kind of suffering as “natural evil” – evil that impacts the natural world itself, as opposed to “moral evil,” which results from human behavior. So why does God let disasters happen? I remember the day after Christmas 2004, when an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean created a tsunami that caused more than 227,000 deaths and displaced millions more in Southeast Asia.

Some Christians say that natural disasters are God’s punishment for immoral behavior. They argue that a whole city can be destroyed because of its sinful ways. They point to New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They say this happened because New Orleans has long been known as one of the “most sinful cities” in the USA. 

I have always found it strange when some people describe natural disasters as “acts of God.” I don’t understand God as a vindictive and hard-nosed authoritarian  —  a God who even had to have his own Son brutally sacrificed for our sins. Did God really want and demand that Jesus suffer terrible torture and death on the cross? In the New Testament, such an understanding of God does not resonate with the historical Jesus’ understanding of God, as his loving Father. A loving parent does not demand the torturous suffering and death of a son or daughter.

Unfortunately, some of our medieval Christian theologians did have distorted authoritarian notions about God, and they passed them on to future generations. Anselm (1033 – 1109) of Canterbury is a good example. He was a theologian and the Archbishop of  Canterbury for sixteen years. Unfortunately, Anselm did not have a very benevolent understanding of God. He saw God as a nard-nosed judge and stern task-master. Anselm believed that human sin and human disobedience to God (going back to Adam and Eve) had defrauded God of the honor that God was due.That offense to God’s honor had to be compensated for and repaired. God, Anselm said, could only be satisfied by having a being of infinite greatness, God’s own Son, acting as a human on behalf of humankind, repay the debt owed to God and thereby satisfy the injury to God’s honor. In other words, God would only be happy when God’s own Son was tortured and suffered a cruel death. Strange. What an image of God. Anselm was made a “saint” and unfortunately many later Christians inherited Anselm’s theological distortions about Jesus and about God. Catholic teaching called it the “Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.”

Anselm’s vision of God was limited. I would suggest in fact that much of our own understanding of God is still greatly limited. Jesus and early Christians clearly understood God as loving and kind. That is essential. That is where we begin. As my theological mentor, Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009), often said: “Christianity began with an experience, an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, which caused people to discover new meaning and to direct their lives in a new direction.” That new meaning and direction was anchored in forgiveness, compassion, mutual support, and collaboration. The Christian community of faith. 

Today, unlike “back then,” we are very empirical. The expression “the scientific method,” with its stress on knowledge coming from sensory experience, came into popular use in the twentieth century. Some contemporary people still suggest that “science and God do not connect.” In fact, however, there have been notable scientists of the 20th century, like Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Max Born, and others, who were very open to an understanding of God in their concepts of life, the universe, and human beings. The Anglo-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead developed a metaphysical creativity framework for his scientific study. He suggested that God’s own process of continually emerging into reality serves as the “divine lure” that guides and sustains everything else in creation. 

The US American philosopher Charles Hartshorn (1897 – 2000) and the US theologians Bernard M. Loomer (1912 – 1985), longtime Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and David Ray Griffin (1939), who co-founded the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology, paved the way to what would become know as “process theism.” They understood God as omnipresent and immanent in such a way as to be intricately related to and bound up with a continually evolving creation. Many process thinkers argue that the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) can be included among process theologians.

Not everyone likes “process thought.” But there are indeed many contemporary theologians, Protestant and Catholic, who do. I, in fact, resonate very much with “process thought” but would stress that “process thought” is still very much IN PROCESS.

I see our earth, our universe, and humanity very much in process: still evolving. I see natural disasters as part of our earth in process but also very much a part of human responsibility or irresponsibility. Climate change, for instance, is our responsibility. Earthquakes and tsunamis are often part of our earth still in process. Although, even with earthquakes, we now know some have had human origins. A database created by geophysicists at Durham and Newcastle Universities in the United Kingdom, has tracked down 730 cases of human-made earthquakes over the last 150 years. The primary causes have been mining, heavy water locked behind reservoir dams, and conventional oil and gas extraction.

So where does prayer fit into this process perspective? The clear message of the Incarnation is that the Divine Presence is here, with us, and with all of creation. God is not simply “over there” in some far-off realm. Over the centuries, the understanding of prayer has often been somewhat narrow. Too often people have seen prayer as just an action, a behavior, a recitation, or participating in a gathering where God and Jesus are mentioned. In all religious traditions there are indeed people who appear to say lots of prayers and yet live very self-centered lives rooted in hatred, racism, and even terrorism.

Prayer first of all refers to an inner state, a state of consciousness, a loving union with God. I do pray. In good times and bad times. In prayer I express my concern for family members and friends who are going through difficult days. In my prayer I try, as well, to travel faithfully with the loving God, even when I don’t understand the twists and turns in life: in the lives of my friends and in my own life. And I realize that my understanding of God is very incomplete. My understanding is still in development, in process, even though I know so very well all the classic God doctrines.

The Jesuit philosopher and theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) stressed that people do not  come to know God by solving doctrinal conundrums, proving God’s existence or engaging in an abstruse metaphysical quest. Rahner stressed the importance of Divine mystery as very simply an aspect of our humanity. Sometimes we must simply live that Mystery, with openness and calm reflection. Sometimes we limit ourselves, relying too much on rational knowing and a too narrow-minded scientific method. That Mystery, which defies description, is God. Religious doctrines can never totally explain or define that Mystery.They are simply symbolic or analogous pointers toward God. When people focus only on the pointers, however, they are getting close to idolatry.

Contemporary theologians really do have to ask how we can develop better pointers towards God. We need pointers anchored in all the complex realities and needs of our time, enabling people to believe and deal with human suffering with serenity and courage. Many of us learned about God at about the same time we also learned about Santa Claus. As we grew in awareness, our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured. But for many people their religious belief remained somewhat static and infantile. 

Divine revelation is not an event that happened once in the past. It is an ongoing and creative process that requires human perception and contemplation. Revelation is a part of reality. We are called to be open, alert, and contemplative. Faith means trust, commitment, and engagement. But too often it is mistakenly understood as an intellectual assent to ecclesiastical propositions.

Today, as science itself says there is so much we still don’t know, it is also time perhaps  to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to mystery and calm and reflective exploration. This may not be easy for contemporary people so used to getting instant information with a click on a cellphone or checking their favorite website or social network.

The image of a domineering and controlling God is an archaic image. We journey today with a different and more of a traveling-companion God, even if we struggle with descriptive words about God. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1John 4:12) The true and essential work of all religions, but especially Christianity, is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing. This is the illuminating light that enlightens all things, making it possible for us to see things in their fullness.

  • Jack 

The Burning Issue

The “burning issue” of course is climate change, and it raises many life-changing ethical questions. Covid-19 and the Delta variant are serious problems for sure. Climate change, however, is a looming catastrophe.

On Monday, August 6th, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  issued its latest assessment about the state of our planet. The cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, led by the United States and European countries since the start of the industrial age, and now more recently by China, have not only heated up our planet, but have set it on course to get much worse in coming years. 

The IPCC report validates decades of scientific predictions about our human contribution to climate change and its already severe impact all over the globe. We have to brace ourselves for more extreme heat waves, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, and more hurricanes. Rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities like Miami and even locations like Mar-a-Lago.  

A week later, on August 13th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared July 2021 the world’s hottest month in 142 years. NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad stressed in his statement: “This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe.”

A record-breaking heat wave that has touched temperatures of up to 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit, has also set off wildfires in the United States, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Siberia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and places in between. Elsewhere in Europe, floods that used to come once in a millennium in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have killed at least 196 people. Not far from where I live, the flood devastation and destruction of homes, buildings, and infrastructure is tremendous. 

Water levels at the largest reservoir on the Colorado River — Lake Mead — have fallen to record lows. Lake Mead, formed by building the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, supplies water to millions of people in Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.

Thomas Reese SJ observed, nevertheless, in NCR last week: “Millions of us are going about our business worrying about our daily lives while Catholic bishops and elites (myself included) argue about the Latin Mass, Communion for politicians and Grindr, rather than the coming climate apocalypse.” Pope Francis warned about climate change in his 2015 encyclical  Laudato Si, yet millions of Catholics, including bishops, are ignoring the looming climate apocalypse and the individual and systemic transformation needed to address it. 

In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. argued that Christian beliefs promoted the domination and exploitation of nature, and therefore were incompatible with environmentalism. Almost half a century later, polls showed that fewer than 50% of all US Protestants and Catholics believe the Earth is warming as a result of human actions.

I remember when Pastor Robert Jeffress, who belonged to the former US president’s Evangelical Advisory Board, retorted on Fox News: “Somebody needs to read poor Greta (Thunberg) Genesis, Chapter 9 and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.”

Many evangelical Christians, polls show, still agree with Jeffress. Others who reject climate change are simply convinced it is a hoax. Nevertheless climate change ignorance contributes to impending disasters. A helpful book here is Robin Veldman’s The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. Veldman observed in an interview in Newsweek “Part of being a part of the evangelical community is showing that you keep good theologically conservative company and environmentalism is associated with being liberal.” 

Recall the story of Chicken Little playing in the yard when an acorn hits her on the head. She yells. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” With climate change we now realize the alarm is real. It is neither an hysterical nor a mistaken belief. Climate disaster has begun, and more frightening scenarios are imminent. 

Climate change has been described as a “perfect moral storm” because it brings together three major challenges to ethical action. (1) Climate change is a truly global phenomenon. (2) Emissions have profoundly intergenerational effects. Emissions of the most prominent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, typically persist in the atmosphere for a long time. This contributes to negative climate impacts not for a few years but for centuries. (3) Our combative tools are underdeveloped in many essential areas, such as international justice, intergenerational ethics, scientific uncertainty, and the appropriate relationship between humans and the rest of nature.  

The issue of climate change is complex, but the message is simple:

• Global warming is real. Human activity is the major cause.

• Global warming is dramatically changing the world around us today.

• Urgent action is called for.

• If we do nothing new (business as usual), the consequences will be dire.

Individuals, groups, associations, churches, and governments must take concerted action now. We must study. We must seriously reflect. We must all collaborate and act.

  • Jack 


Surveying today’s news reports, we see many “anti-vaxers” using the Bible to promote their cause. They most often link coronavirus vaccinations and the “evil” of face masks with the “mark of the beast” – a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in Revelation 13:16-18. There we read: “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man. And  his number is 666.” Some Christian anti-vaxers even claim that the mark of the beast is a microchip within the vaccine. They blame Bill Gates.

The link between the vaccine and the mark of the beast has also been drawn by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado of the Miami megachurch, King Jesus International Ministry, where the previous US president launched his 2020 campaign outreach to Latinos. The previous US president’s religious counselor Paula White also liked to quote from Revelation. She assured the president that he was chosen and blessed by God and had to promote “spiritual warfare” against his and God’s enemies. 

The most common understanding of 666 is that in the ancient world letters of the alphabet often substituted for numbers. Each letter stood for a number. The number 666, for instance, referred to Nero Caesar, in the Hebrew spelling of the name. Later interpretations of 666 applied it to Hitler, and even (conservative US Americans take note) to President Reagan as 666: Ronald (6 letters) Wilson (6 letters) Reagan (6 letters).

As one of my old biblical theology professors liked to say: “The Book of Revelation, what Catholics often call the Apocalypse, has a wax nose. For centuries people have twisted and shaped its texts to fit a variety of enemies, fears, and anxieties.”

A distorted use of the Bible works like all great conspiratorial narratives. People select the most appealing interpretation, even when it offers a simplistic, unambiguous explanation for the complexities of the world. It is part of our “post-truth” contemporary environment. On Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, and in the news sites like Fox News, objective facts seem less influential in shaping public opinion than strong appeals to emotion and personal opinions. 

In the discussion, for example, about the Apostle Peter not being the first pope, one person wrote to me that whether or not he was the first pope is simply a matter of personal opinion. I wrote back that it is not a matter of opinion but documented historic fact. “That’s YOUR opinion!” was the response.

Biblical interpretation is a complex process. It involves an historical-critical examination of the text, which aims to discover the text’s original meaning in its original historical context. Historical criticism asks, for instance, when and where a text was written and for whom. The first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, were long held to have been written by Moses. In 1906, in fact, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a ruling that Moses was indeed the author. Good Catholics had to accept that.

The contemporary scholarly consensus, however, is that the biblical person Moses may very well be largely mythical. But a Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in the mid to late 13th century BCE. Hardly any biblical scholar today would claim that the five books of the Pentateuch were written by Moses, or a Moses figure. Such an author would have been long dead before the first texts began to take shape. The development of the Pentateuch began around 600 BCE, with a variety of authors. By around 400 BCE these books had reached their modern form. By around 200 BCE the five books were accepted as the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Historical criticism also involves understanding the language and culture of the biblical authors and the variety of literary forms in the Scriptures. There we find, for instance, myth, history, laws, poetry, symbol, and metaphor. 

Biblical authors also used creative imagery, supposing what one thinks the historical biblical figure would have said in set circumstances. We see this for instance in the Gospel of John, where Jesus gives very developed theological soliloquies about himself. They are theological but not historical. We see as well much creative imagery in the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Those accounts of Jesus’ birth are more about a theological understanding of Jesus than an exact historical account of his birth. Their focus is on the theological question “who is Jesus of Nazareth?” 

Many contemporary scholars suggest actually that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth and that the Bethlehem nativity narratives reflect a desire by the Gospel writers to present his birth as the fulfillment of a prophecy given by the minor prophet Micah. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel….” (Micah 5:2)

Fundamentalist believers insist that a written biblical record must be historic or else it is nonsense and meaningless. Too many people these days have very little tolerance critical questioning and are blind to nuance. I suggest, nevertheless, that if one wants to do a bonafide reading of the gospels, one must be open to the process of historical criticism and appreciate the variety of literary forms by which truth is revealed but not necessarily in a precise historical manner. These texts do indeed reveal truth but on a different level. 

Biblical texts can also be the result of creative editing. For example, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) Jesus is clearly portrayed as the New Moses. The old Moses brought the Ten Commandments from the mount. Jesus brings from his “mount” not commandments but exhortations about how one should live. Scholars suggest these exhortations were collected from what Jesus had said at various points in his public ministry. The final author of Matthew simply edited and pulled them all together.

In the Jesus sayings in Matthew chapter 5:29 – 30, we also find Jesus using hyperbole: figures of speech usually not meant to be taken literally. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away….And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.” The Greek word here translated as “hell” is Gehenna. It was originally understood as a grave and in later times a place of purgation where deceased people were judged based on their past deeds.

Not everything in the Bible is to be observed and followed literally. Some, mistaken, rigid fundamentalists do that. How, for instance, do we evaluate the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Scriptures? Frankly, some of them in Leviticus and Exodus, are simply archaic and cruel. People do grow and change. Or they can! Belief and morality develop as well.

Leviticus and Exodus developed indeed over a long period of time. Leviticus emphasizes ritual, legal and moral practices rather than beliefs. Exodus, starting with Moses and the delivery of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, presents the defining features of Israel’s identity. The consensus among scholars is that the events in Exodus are best understood as creative religious imagery and not historical events. Exodus and Leviticus reached their present forms between 538 and 332 BCE. 

Right now I am thinking about two regulatory texts. Leviticus 25:44 states that one may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to using Mexicans. But does it apply to using Canadians as well? 

Then, there is a question about working on the Sabbath. The Sabbath goes from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. My neighbor, down the street, insists on working on the Sabbath. The fellow always mows his lawn, with lots of noise, very early on Saturday mornings. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that the person who works on the Sabbath should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Is there a biblically correct way to kill Sabbath-breakers? 

Evaluating literary forms and historical critical interpretations can indeed get one into big debates. Thinking about Genesis, I would strongly agree with those biblical scholars who understand Adam and Eve as mythological biblical figures, along with Noah and the great flood. One of my friends strongly insists, however, that as a true Christian I must accept Adam, Eve, and Noah as historic people. Why?

Biblical translations also deserve special attention. Translating the Bible is not something that is easy to do. Should the translation be literal? Should the work be more thought for thought? No translation is totally literal or totally thought-for-thought. Every translation gives a particular nuance and occasionally a different meaning. I am sensitive to translation issues because I do a lot of translations. Nuance is so important.

The Hebrew Scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek in the mid 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. What we call the Septuagint is the translated Greek version. When we read Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint, for example, we read “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” That text, which we know so well from Christmas, was used for centuries to affirm the virginal conception of Jesus of Nazareth. When we look at the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14, however, we read “Behold a young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” 

The original Hebrew text referred to King Ahaz who was the twelfth King of Judah from c.744 to 728 BCE. The prophet Isaiah admonished Ahaz to trust in God rather than foreign allies. In the text Isaiah 7:14, the prophet assured Ahaz that his young wife would conceive and have a son who would be Immanuel – God with us. Ahaz did have a son, Hezekiah, who, unlike his father, became a very righteous and religious king.

Some people are reluctant to trust newer Bible translations. There is a great abundance today and in  many languages. I have a modest collection of new translations in English, Dutch, and French. Each with a particular nuance. One English translation, which I generally like, uses inclusive language. It does raise some eyebrows. It is most definitely not patriarchal. 

I would stress that we need to recognize that today we do indeed have much more and more accurate  historical information than people had, for instance, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when major English translations were made. The Douay–Rheims (Catholic) Bible came out between 1582 and 1610. The King James Bible was published in 1610. We need to be alert as well to the changing meanings of English words. Consider, for example how the word “gay” has changed over the years. In the King James Bible, James 2:3 speaks about “gay clothing.” But the New American Standard Bible translation speaks of “fine clothes.”  

A contemporary New Testament translation issue that very much interests me is about the Greek words Hebraios and Ioudaios. Strictly speaking, Hebraios means “Hebrews” or “Hebrew Christians;” and Ioudaios means “Judeans.” In most English New Testament translations, however, both words are translated as “Jews.”

Strictly speaking, there are no “Jews” in the New Testament. Inhabitants of Judea were called Judeans, not Jews. At the time of Jesus, there was no religious, racial, or national group called “Jews.”  Not in Judea nor anywhere in the world. The word “Jews” appeared for the first time in an English biblical text in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382. There, citing John 19:19,  we read: “This is Jhesu of Nazareth, kyng of Jewis.”

John Wycliffe (c.1320s – 1384) was an Oxford professor and priest who produced the first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts in the 1380’s. The Pope, Martin V who was pope from 1417 to his death in 1431, was so infuriated by Wycliffe’s teachings and his translation of the Bible into English, that 44 years after John Wycliffe died, he ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the local river.

How does one know how to best understand Biblical texts? It is not just a matter of personal opinion. I rely on up-to-date biblical commentaries and the research of respected biblical scholars: scholarly researchers who are well informed and trustworthy. There are a great many credible scholars today. Among Catholic scholars whom I like are my friends Raymond Collins and Frank Matera, and Luke Timothy Johnson. Among Anglican and Protestant scholars I have great respect for the Anglican scholar and bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright and the Protestant scholars Michael K. Gorman, Christopher W. Skinner, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa.

All theology is faith seeking understanding. It is a collaborative effort. We inform and support one another, and we journey together, grateful for credible, wise, and trustworthy guides. Our faith is something living, something dynamic, and something life-changing. 

  • Jack

PS    Next week a shorter reflection. About a burning issue.

“You Are Peter….”

A question from a reader of last week’s post on Transformation creates the focus for this week’s reflection.

He was kind but critical and quite surprised that I “as a good Catholic” could not acknowledge and accept that Jesus did indeed set up the papacy and that Jesus chose Peter “the rock” as the first pope. 

The biblical citation my reader used of course was Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community and the powers of death will not prevail against it…” This text has, over the centuries, often been used by Roman Catholics as the scriptural basis for the Catholic understanding that the papacy was established by Jesus. (The greek word ekklesia here best translated as “community” has often been less appropriately translated as institutional “church,” something that came much later.)

Some historical background: Most scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was composed between 80 and 90 CE. The author is unknown but wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew Christians located probably in Syria. The earlier tradition attributing this gospel to the Apostle Matthew is rejected by most contemporary scholars. Actually the names of gospel authors remained anonymous until the second century, when the Church Fathers sought to establish who, in their opinions, were probably the original authors. Matthew was apparently attributed as the author of this gospel because, more than any other gospel, it speaks of the disciple Matthew.

The author “Matthew” appears to have been a Hebrew Christian who wanted to emphasize that the Hebrew tradition should not be lost in a church that was becoming increasingly Gentile. When biblical scholars look at the text Matthew 16:18, they see not an historic Jesus statement but a creative theological reflection, written years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. The historical Jesus did not choose Peter to be head of the church. And it did not happen. The biblical author wanted to stress the pro-Hebrew-Christian belief of his community and used a creative Peter narrative as his tool.

In early church history, if Paul could be labeled “the Apostle to the Gentiles,”  Peter could be called “the Apostle to the Hebrew Christians.” 

What do we really know about Peter? When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the early apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Yes Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew-Christians.

Most scholars agree that Peter did end up going to Rome but he was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a bishop until about the middle of the second century. There is in fact a broad consensus among scholars, including most Roman Catholic ones, that the church of Rome was led by a college of presbyters until well into the second century. And nowhere is there biblical or historical evidence that Peter founded the church of Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived in Rome there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop. 

The Roman Catholic biblical scholars, Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier (1942), were emphatic in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.” 

Despite its growing popularity, Christianity in Rome was often misunderstood and membership brought  enormous risks. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, the Emperor Nero tried to divert attention away from his own failings. He used Roman Christians as an easy scapegoat. He had Christians arrested, tortured and executed. Some were crucified, some were thrown to wild animals, and others were burned alive. Although the New Testament does not tell us how Peter died, there is a strong tradition that he died by crucifixion between 64 and 68 CE during the reign of Nero, who was emperor from 54 to 68 CE.

One can understand historically that imperial Rome also became an important Petrine location not because Peter had been bishop of Rome but because he was an important martyr and a real link with the historical Jesus. By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the Peter legacy and legends were expanded and took on Imperial importance.

Already during the reign of Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and under the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and legends about Peter were held in high regard. Helena no doubt was influenced as well by her reading of Matthew 16:18. Between 320 and 327, Constantine built a five-aisled basilica atop the early Christian necropolis that was purported to be Peter’s resting place. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, in the fifth century. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. He greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter.

The term “pope,” coming from the Latin word papa meaning “father,” was originally applied to all the bishops in Western Christianity. In 1073, however, Pope Gregory VII restricted its use to the bishop of Rome.

To conclude this reflection….l would agree that today one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, and ministry. One can also understand today’s bishops, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant, as sharing in that same tradition. It is only with a bit of creative symbolic imagery, however, that one can really call Peter the “first pope.”

Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on better contemporary historical and biblical research. 

  • Jack